Posts Tagged ‘language

28
Oct
16

Poetry Assignments: The Book (Online): Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages

POETRY ASSIGNMENTS

Brian Warner's The Cave

“The Cave” by Brian Warner. Used with the permission of Brain Warner.

or 100 Jackhammers for the Poet with Writer’s Block;

or 100 Ways to Jumpstart the Engine;

or 100 Pencil Exercises;

or 100 Ways to Stimulate Your Next Wine, Cheese, & Poetry Night

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Table of Contents

Introduction

  1. Finding the First, Discovering the Middle, & Chasing the End
  2. Imaginary Worlds
  3. Science, the Universe, Time, & Other Evolutions
  4. Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages
  5. Forms: Obscure, Updated, & Invented
  6. New School; or Double Vision; or WWI (Writing While Intoxicated) & Its Repercussions
  7. Miscellany; Trying to Relate the Unrelated; or These Gotta Go Some Place . . . So Here
  8. Stupid Money, Dumb Politicians, & Celebrating America
  9. Responses; or Calling All Poets (Dead & Alive); or Talking to Eternity
  10. It’s All About You

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Fun with Letters, Words, Language, & Languages

New Meanings

Take a poem you have written (preferably a dead poem, a poem you have given up on), find a word within the poem (a pivot word/an important word), change its meaning, & make that the title. For example, in the following Emily Dickinson poem:

   Faith is a fine invention
   when gentlemen can see,
   but microscopes are prudent
   in an emergency.

I will choose “microscopes” & make it mean “love.” The title of the poem will be something like – “If Microscopes Meant Love” or “Read Love for Microscopes.”

It’s a bit of a language thing, but hopefully it will bring to life a dead poem, at which point you should chase that life & play with the poem until it sings anew!

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The “Dialouges” Experiment

This one is a result of Thom Caraway’s fine eyes & ears. “Dialouges” is pronounced (die ya loogz). The word doesn’t exist. The poem is to make this word exist. If you can work Plato into the poem, then even better.

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The Bernadette Mayer Experiment

I am stealing this from Bernadette Mayer’s essay “Experiments” [here’s a version of the essay: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/library/Mayer-Bernadette_Experiments.html] in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (Southern Illinois University Press, 1984. pp 80-83.).

“Using phrases relating to one subject or idea, write about another (this is pushing metaphor and simile as far as you can), for example, steal science terms or philosophical language & write about snow or boredom.”

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The Tod Marshall Project

I’m stealing this from Tod Marshall, or making a variant of a Tod Marshall experiment.

In this assignment: describe an abstraction to a noun.

For instance, Marshall has a poem called, “Describe Custody to an Omelet,” which I think is in his new book, Dare Say (University of Georgia Press, 2002).

(9-2-06 addendum): I heard Tod Marshall read some of these poems at a reading with Nance Van Winckel in Sandpoint, ID. It was a late-afternoon reading that was done by candlelight, after the town lost electricity. I wrote the assignment before reading Dare Say. The poems do not appear in Dare Say, but appear in a forthcoming manuscript of Tod Marshall. Nonetheless, Dare Say is a kick ass book, & the assignment is still a good one.

(11-16-06 addendum): Here are some examples. With permission of Tod Marshall.

   Describe Entertainment Tonight to HDT

   I went to the woods because I wished to live celebrities,
   to suck the Mia Farrow out of life, to know Katie and Tom,
   Bennifer and Brangelina, to chat with Hugh Jackman and Jessica Simpson,
   to feel the inner turmoil of Mariah Carey and the desperate plight of Bobby Brown,
   to corner life and find its meanness, to eat woodchucks and wildness,
   to plant beans and catch pickerel, to read and walk and deliberate,
   but mainly to live celebrities.
   How soon arguing with Tom Cruise becomes tedious,
   how awful in my small cabin to listen to the musings
   of Kid Rock, to bump my head continually
   against Pamela Anderson’s boobs.
   How tiresome Ben and Jennifer and their brat.
   The deep pathos I feel for Lindsay Lohan’s emaciated frame
   fades when she leaves prescription bottles in my bean rows,
   when she and Paris drunkenly drive a Range Rover through the garden
   and let that fish-bait nipper of a dog
   yip at the stoic deer. Can I say it again? Arguing with Tom Cruise
   is like chewing bricks, listening to another speech on the merits of slavery,
   on the necessity of this or that war,
   taking ice picks, slamming them into your temples,
   and wiggling them around until you hear the metal clicking.
   Next time I walk to Concord I’ll have a few things to say about quiet desperation,
   and I think that I’ll bring Ralph Waldo
   a copy of Glitter, the unrated version of Dukes of Hazzard,
   dvd season three of American Idol,
   a year’s subscription to People, and Ashton Kuchar arm in arm with Demi Moore
   to prove my case about the stars
   and how hard people work not to see them.
 
 
 
 
 

   Describe Haiku to the Labyrinth

   Autumn,
   a woman loves
   a great white bull.

                               (old stone pond)

   Winter, nothing blooms.
   But in the maze
   mushrooms erupt on rotting bodies.

                               (frog jumps)

   Spring means forgive.
   The string wound
   in a ball,  the gate.

                               (sound of water)

   Summer.
   Lupine  and pearly everlasting:
   be lost.

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a: Crackbrains, Cranberry Trees, & Everything in Between; or a Slice of the Lexicon

You will need a dictionary for this. (My favorite, without exception, is The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. (Third & fourth editions, especially [or http://The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language Fifth Edition].))

In most dictionaries, a header on each page contains two words: one word indicates the first word alphabetically listed on the page that will be defined, & the other word indicates the last word alphabetically listed on the page that will be defined.

Your assignment: randomly flip to a page in a dictionary & use the two words in the header as starting points & ending points of your poem. Between those words, use all the words listed on the randomly-turned-to page. I suspect a few interesting things will occur as a result: the poem will have harmony, the poem most likely will have meaningful connections on an etymological level, not to mention the imagination that will be riding those two elements, & a few other surprises.

This poem, however, does not have to begin & end with the header words, but they should be near the beginning & end. For instance, with “crackbrain” & “cranberry tree”:

   Fernando Pessoa was not a crackbrain
   for not obeying his mother’s crack downs
   . . .
   he ate too many raw cranberries
   from the cranberry tree in back
   & the savory sourness
   puckered his mind
   til it split into two –
   the poet & his critic.

Ok. Get cracking.

The Criticb: The critic, or “It stinks!”

Thinking of Pessoa – who actually did write poems under one name, & then criticized them under another name, but who had multiple personalities. . . . After completing your poem, you are to write at least a one-page literary criticism of the poem. And to make it fun, pretend you are someone else. Perhaps write in the voice of Marjorie Perloff, or I.A. Richards, or Derrida, or Robert Bly, or Jay Sherman, or even John Lovitz (ug). Ok.

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A rose is a rose is a symbol is a something Moses supposes erroneously; or putting the BIG back in ambiguous; or no more hijacking/taming the language

In the last three or so years of my writing poems, my main focus has been clarity: Make certain the poem is understandable, at least on the surface level. Well, I think I have basically achieved that clarity . . . but along the away sacrifices were made. I became a reductionist with the language. That is, I ended up reducing words: One word has one meaning & can be in only one syntactical position.

(Saussure says something like: Language is like a game of chess & each word is like a chess piece – each word has certain roles, can only do certain things, & can only move in certain directions. And the rules of chess are like the grammar/syntax of language.)

That type of thinking, which on the other hand deconstructionists rightly or wrongly will say is fine thinking/presentation, limits the magic/power of the word. Almost all words have either more than one meaning or associations or innuendos or homonyms, etc, & the metaphor relies on the magic of the word: however deconstructionists don’t trust the metaphor:

“Derrida equates metaphor with usury, saying in effect, that it ‘promises more than it delivers’ while exacting a terrible, hidden, bankrupting interest on the ability of language to pay off, to signify without succumbing to ‘epistemological ambivalence.’ This is metaphor as loan shark.” (From Peter Sharpe’s new book The Ground of Our Beseeching (Susquehanna University Press, 2005). A great study on metaphor in contemporary American poetry.)

I’m not picking on the deconstructionists or those who use the language as I have, but it is in thinking about the subtleties of the word/metaphor, in part, where poetry can be fun.

So despite what Gertrude “Gerty, Gert, Gewürztraminer” Stein thinks, we are going to loosen up the language. We are going to make poetry fun again. We are going to purposely write as ambiguously as we can. And by ambiguous, I mean multi-meaning – plurisignative. I mean a phrase/sentence/metaphor suggesting more than one idea/thing/moment at the same time, & as a result, we are going to make so many associations & suggestions & hints with our ambiguities that we are going to connect everything in the universe, or as much as we can, into one poem.

“A diminishment of reality takes place when our experience is negotiated without ambiguity. . . . This ambiguity [in poetry] permits the spectator to insert details of his or her own, niches of perception left undetermined or open by the artist” (Tess Gallagher, quoted from William Heyen’s essay “Ambiguity” in Pig Notes & Dumb Music.) Heyen continues, “(Hemingway and others, of course, have spoken of the writer’s need to have a feeling for what to leave out.)” [Quote from “Ambiguity” by William Heyen published in Pigs Notes & Dumb Music by BOA Editions, Ltd., in 1998 © and used with permission.]

“The poet, no less than the scientist, works on the assumption that inert and live things and relations hold enough interest to keep him alive as part of nature.” – Louis Zukofsky

We are going to make metaphors that breach time – that connect the past, present, & future. We are going to create time!

You can even be fragmentary if you want to suspend time, like Franz Wright does in Walking to Martha’s Vineyard.

So what do I mean by all of this? Here’s a good example of what I mean by ambiguity, in part. We will continue with Franz Wright & move to a poem of his from Ill Lit: New and Selected Poems (Oberlin College Press, 1998).

   The Forties

   and in the desert cold men invented the star

What could this poem be about. With the title, I’m led right away to the 1940s & quickly after to the nuclear bomb. “the star” is the nuclear bomb. It was created & detonated for the first time in the desert in the 1940s. So we got that going.

But let’s consider more. Since there is no punctuation in the poem, we kind of have to figure out where some punctuation could be. So let’s put a comma after “desert”. How does the poem read now? Well, according to history, the a-bomb was exploded in the early morning, so the men who dropped the bomb could have been physically cold. But also, & here is where the ambiguity & metaphor works, the men could have been cold in another manner – as in cold, heartless men, since so much destruction, death, & a “cold war” will be created after WWII concludes with the dropping of the bombs on Japan.

Now let’s remove that comma & reposition it after “cold”. In this case we get more of a creation myth story – men invent the star, but most important to this poem, & this assignment, it still ties back to the nuclear bomb. The star is a star is a nuclear bomb.

With the underlying creation myth, & with the desert & with the star, & with the men, there are some religious undertones to the poem, too, perhaps. And with the title, “The Forties,” & religion & forty days & forty nights, how far off from another creation story are we? It echoes of the birth of Jesus a bit. Perhaps that it is stitch. But if you read the poem in low, deep-toned voice, like the voice of god, then it comes across better, maybe.

Also with the creation myth in our minds or not, by starting the poem “and” we are instantly put into epic mode – in media res. (Think of Pound’s The Cantos, Homer’s Odyssey, H.G. Wells The Outline of History, etc.). Then with no period at the end of the poem, we are lead to think of a continuing story. This poem is a pivotal moment between what was & what will be – it divides history in to what was before the cold war & the cold war that follows. (Does “cold” act as foreshadowing, also?)

Also note the power of these nine words. Four words are small & almost inconsequential. And there are only five big words that our minds can grab on to.

So, what I’m suggesting is: Be vague, be subtle, be suggestive, be inclusive & exclusive. Be a metaphor.

I think this assignment can also be done on an ambiguous tonal level, too. Can it be done on a melodic level, too? Let’s try & find that out, also!

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Etymological Rotisserie

This idea came to me from reading Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, & most recently Natasha Sajé. First go back in time & find an Indo-European root word. (They are all in the back of the American Heritage Dictionary). List all its derivative words, & then try to get all those words into one poem.

For instance, kailo-, which means “whole, uninjured, of good omen.” Its derivatives (words that came from it) are: whole, hale (as in “free from infirmity or illness”), wholesome, hail (as in “to salute or greet”), wassail, health, heal, holy, halibut, halidom, holiday, hollyhock, hallow, Allhallowmass, & Halloween.

Those are the words to try & work into the poem. Not all have to be in, but give it a go.

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Leaping

This one comes to my attention from Laura Stott. We do not know the original creator.

Use the words below to write a poem that makes leaps (kinda like Deep Image poetry). You do not have to move straight across from the first Noun to first Verb to the first Other, but use the nouns in the order as they come & fill in the spaces. When you are inclined to use a verb, pick the first verb & do likewise with the “Other” words. Force yourself to make jolting connections in a similar fashion as a deep image poem. Think “emotive imagination” & make what leaps you have to create an experience through your intuitive self. The following words come from W.S. Merwin’s poem “For the Anniversary of My Death” in The Lice (Atheneum, 1971), which can be found in The Second Four Books of Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1993).

Nouns Verbs Other
Year Knowing Without
Day Passed Last
Fires Wave Tireless
Silence Will Lightless
Traveler Surprised Strange
Beam Love Shamelessness
Star Writing Three
Garment Hearing Cease
Earth Sing
Woman Falling
Men Bowing
Today
Rain
Wren

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Vowels & Consonants; or Vowel Movements

I suddenly just awoke from a really deep, deep sleep after several days of very light sleep. It was so deep that it took my mind a second or two to figure out where it was, & it took my body, especially my limbs, at least seven seconds to make the journey back to this more physical/conscious world.

After a few more moments, I said to my self “I am so tired.” (As I look at that phrase now, it seems so short compared to how it sounded.) But what I realized, or was reminded of, was my hypothesis I’ve been carrying around for some time now. My probably, improvable hypothesis which states:

In the poetry of the English Language, vowels carry the emotion & the consonants carry the meaning. (And it’s usually the long vowels that provide the emotional content & schwa’s act more as consonants.)

Using the above example, “I am so tired,” I can elaborate. Each word has a long vowel, & because I was so tired, the “a” in “am” was dragged out quite some way to make it sound & act long, & the “o” in “so” was the longest vowel & “so” the longest syllable. (Yes, sometimes & usually, the content dictates how to read syllables.) Each syllable in that phrase was dragged out to emphasize my tiredness. But what made the sentence move forward was the turn of the consonants. Those consonants provided the meaning to the emotion. The consonants framed, or gave the vowels a context in which to work – in which the emotions could gather/find meanings.

Ok. Here’s the assignment. Write two poems about the same thing. In one, be heavy handed with vowels. In the other, be heavy handed with consonants. Then compare & contrast to see if any of what I said above may be true. You could also translate, or replace, an English poem’s words by substituting more vowel induced words in one case or more consonant induced words in another.

Poets to read that might be helpful in this assignment: maybe Campion for vowels, & an Old English alliterative poet for consonants.

If anyone discovers anything fascinating, or has their own ideas, please share.

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Tonal Dialectic

This one invaded me last night/this early morning (Thursday, December 18, 2003, around 4:30 a.m.) as I couldn’t sleep, & I started thinking about my recent poems & what I may try to do with my new poems to better reflect my thought/emotional processes. Also, I’m doing it because I came up with a cool phrase/coined a cool phrase in those wee hours, & now, I want to give the phrase some context.

I’ll start like this, I guess. In metrical poetry, a poem moves forward in part because of the stressed & unstressed syllables, or the long & short syllables, or both. (It also moves forward by tone, images, rhythm, line breaks, narrative momentum, etc., but mainly the syllables.) There’s an interplay and a tension between the stressed and unstressed syllables.

Ok. Here’s the assignment: do that with tone!

I thought of the term “tonal dialectic,” & I think it works in a similar manner as metrical movement. Shifts in tone. A tension can be made there. Meanings can surface!

So perhaps stanza one is in tone A, & stanza two is in tone B, & stanza three resolves them with tone C. Perhaps even more stanzas & tones. Or tone changes with lines, or whatever you see/hear fit.

So the assignment is to write a poem with different tones rubbing against each other to create something! But hopefully the tones will work in a progressive nature, not an arbitrary one.

It’s a bit abstract, I suppose, & I have no advice except to read Donald Hall. His poems ride on tones, as I hear them. Or listen to Schoenberg.

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Tonal Dialectic, part two – Using a Separate Language

I just finished reading David Budbill’s wonderful new collection of poems While We’ve Still Got Feet (Copper Canyon Press, 2005).

In this book, Budbill is basically reflecting on life/living. In part this is how he does it: because he’s an American but seemingly deeply influenced by ancient Asian poets, Budbill writes poems that have an ancient Asian tone about them but with a contemporary American linear language.

So what I mean is that the tone of the poems is similar to the tone you would expect to find, for instance, in a Muso Soseki poem or a Li Po poem or in The Kokinshu. And then he uses American language, because that is probably what he grew up with & how he thinks, to push the poems forward. For example:

   Gama Sennin

   Gut hangin’ out
   Stick on shoulder.
   Toad up on me
   head.

   Singin’ me songs
   on Red Dust Road,
   headed toward
   dead.

You can see the American language in “hangin’,” “Singin’,” & in the use of “me” instead of “my.” And the tone comes through, in part, I think, from the images & the last three lines & the title.

There is also this:

   Ryōkan Says

   With what can I
   compare this life?
                Weeds floating on water. 

   And there you are with your
   dreams of immortality         
                through poetry. 

   Pretty pompous – 
   don’t you think? – for a
                weed floating on water?


   (Quoted poems are by David Budbill as they appear in While We’ve Still Got Feet (Copper Canyon P, 
   2005)©, and they are used with permission of Copper Canyon Press.)

There he begins with a one of Ryōkan’s poem then responds to it.

So here’s the general dialectic of the poems. He rubs the tone (thesis, if you will) up with the language (antithesis) to synthesize a resulting poem, or understanding of life, love, ego, politics, poetry, etc. (Please note my reductionary “dialectic” description of these poems is very insulting to the poems, & I’m only using it to generate a poetry assignment. However, the tone/language is genuine & impressive.)

Your assignment is to write a poem with a very certain tone but in a language that is quite different than the tone. So perhaps you may want to write a poem in an Allen Ginsberg tone but while writing with the language (words/grammar) of Alexander Pope. Or this might be fun: write a poem with scientific language but in a religious tone. Or whatever you can come up with. And the poem should be a reflective poem, though not necessarily meditative or lyrical.

a: Tonal Dialectic, part three – Is the tone; or Tone the Is; or Is “Is” the Tone or Does Tone Tone the Is?

So I was watching the news – zoning in & out of it – and a commercial came on. Now I’m mostly zoned out until the end with its written, printed slogan on the screen:

   ACE
   The Helpful Place

(I dig how John Madden’s voice balances the helpful tone, but I didn’t realize until just now.) What I did realize when watching the ad was the line break, or what the line break has inside of it. It has the verb of the sentence. It has “is”. I thought that odd because if I remember my commercials well, they tend to have a subject & predicate, the objects, subjects, & verbs are not implied, & the verbs tend to be emphasized – but I could be remembering wrong. But nonetheless.

I then drifted to this thought. Can’t we, as writers of poems, do the same? Use the line break to carry the implied. I mean we do, but how often? How does it affect the tone?

Consider these lines from Margaret Atwood’s “Manet’s Olympia”:

   Above the head of the (clothed) maid
   is an invisible voice balloon: Slut.

Couldn’t it have read:

   Above the head of the (clothed) maid
   an invisible voice balloon: Slut.

And some us may even have put an em dash after maid.

But the poem could have done the line break with no “is” or em dash. But, really, it couldn’t. Not in these poems from Morning in the Burned House (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995 (first Canadian edition, which precedes the first English Edition (London: Virago, 1995) & the first American edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995))). Not at this point in the book. No, at this point, these poems are too sassy, up front, blunt. And I’m not sure if it is because of the poem’s tone or because of the uses of “is” within the poem.

In later sections, the use of “is” becomes less frequent, but the sassiness & bluntness are still there, but not as up front as later poems. And in those poems the tense changes & wavers between future & past tenses (or future perfect & past perfect, or whatever those terms are that I can’t remember but intuit).

So I wonder: Is the verb responsible for the tone, or the tone responsible for the verb? Is it that age old question: which came first: the tone or the verb? Ug.

So what we will do to find out is:

  1. Write a poem that uses “is” a lot. Make sure “is” happens at a line’s end or a line’s beginning.
  2. Rewrite that same poem, but replace each “is” with an empty space, unless the “is” happens to not be at the line’s end or the line’s beginning.
  3. Rewrite the same poem with different verbs. Replace each “is” with “would have” or “would be” or “had been” or “was” or “could be” or “could have been,” etc.

Now as I look back at those lines, that colon is doing a lot of work, too. The colon replaces something like “that reads” or “containing the word,” or something like that. So now:

b: Colonial Imperialism of Words; or Colonizing Ellipticism

Let’s explore how we can use the colon to replace words in a manner similar to the previous assignment, part a. But instead of finding a relationship with tone, we will find a relationship with ellipticism.

How far can we push that colon before we lose/distance our reader? How much information can be stored in a colon? Find the brevity inclusive/exclusive breaking point of the colon.

Is this what Alice Fulton & others are trying to do when they use “::”?

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Call & Response; or The Line of In-Between; or Silent Echo; or I Always Forget the Title of a Poem by Line Three, Except in this Poem

I have just had my first encounter with Ray Gonzalez. Oh, man! This guy is good. There is one poem, “Emerge,” I find myself returning to for two reasons: one, it’s a kick ass poem (& there are other kick ass poems, too – & by kick ass, I mean, they kick you so hard in amazement, you fall on your ass, even when you’re sitting down, Oi!); two, he does something unique. I’ll explain after you read the poem, which is from Consideration of the Guitar: New and Selected Poems (BOA Editions, 2005).

   Emerge

   As if the sacred is the only way
   and desire is fortune spilled across the desert
   where no one has stepped in years.

   As if the fever lifted from rage could change
   the world and stir the holy water
   tinged with blood.

   As if the fallen song was a great mystery
   and its rhyme came from the unfed mouths
   of those who promised they would not weep.

   As if the willow tree was a warning of green
   and falling things resisting the broken ground.

   As if listing the very heart of truth was outlawed
   by a summer afternoon impossible to breathe.

   As if each thing accomplished was taken away
   by those who don’t speak, but rearrange
   the candle to ward off the starving spirit.

   As if music in the fingers was played in time
   to hear the heron rise, its flapping wings
   changing the river into a pond.

   As if a thousand rocks left one stone to emerge
   through the decaying monument where no
   one said anything as the mountain arrived.

   As if the one thing we believe was finally
   played on a guitar carved from the wood
   of our father’s crib.

   As if the darkness is the beloved teacher
   and its tool the mightiest reason
   to go there together, unafraid.

   As if the sacred is the only way
   and the difficulties are lined up on the shelf
   decorating the hallway into the interior

   where the names we are called
   are the names of those who emerge.


   (“Emerge” by Ray Gonzalez published in Consideration of the Guitar: New and Selected Poems by BOA 
   Editions, Ltd., in 2005 © and used with permission.)

So this is how I hear the poem when I read it in my head. I hear “Emerge” between each stanza, except before the last stanza. It’s like in between each stanza is a brief meditation on “Emerge” – emerge is like what . . . . It’s a calling in the empty space between the stanzas. The next stanza is the response. There’s no real silence in this poem, that is, when you read it in your head.

But Gonzalez was smart enough to not put “Emerge” between each stanza, for to read the poem aloud with “Emerge” between each stanza, doesn’t seem to work. “Emerge” would steal too much energy. “Emerge” would dominate the poem. The poem would be overly dramatic. No, “Emerge” needs to be silent, but understood – understood to be there between the stanzas. And I think this poem succeeds in doing that.

Now, your assignment is to succeed. Create a call-&-response poem with the title intuitively understood to be heard between the stanzas. If you can manage to pull it off, actually put the title word, or words, between the stanza so they are read aloud, then, please, do so.

And then, or prior to writing the poem, wonder what type of poem this would be successful in. A contemplative poem, meditative poem. Could a narrative poem work with this? – I think it could. Maybe even lyrical.

But alas, go forth. Talk to yourself. Talk to the poem. Let the poem talk . . . & respond.

NB: The first section of this book: Consideration of the Guitar: New Poems reads as its own book. So really, you are getting a book & then a book of selected poems. How often do you get that?

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The Miguel de Cervantes Experiment

“The Prologue” begins Don Quixote, & it offers some good advice on writing, especially on the use of allusions.

The next section is called “To the Book of Don Quixote of La Mancha,” which is filled with poems to & about Don Quixote, Rocinante, & Pedro Panza. The first poem, “Urganda the Unrecognized,” is in a form called versos de cabo rato. The footnote explains the form as follows:

This comical form is called versos de cabo rato (translated: “lines with unfinished endings”). The dropped syllable is the one after the line’s last word’s stressed syllable.

I will quote the beginning:

   ON SANCHO

   I am the esquire Sancho Pan--
   Who served Don Quixote of La Man--;
   But from his service I retreat--,
   Resolved to pass my life discreet--;
   For Villadiego, called the Si--,
   Maintained that only in reti--
   Was found the secret of well-be--,
   According to the “Celesti--:”
   A book divine, except for sin--
   By speech too plain, in my opin--


   Translated by John Ormsby. Quoted from Project GutenbergTM License. 
   http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?pageno=33&fk_files=84486

Have fun!

a: Linear Palindrome

This one is for Dan Morris.

This assignment is based on Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “Myth”, which appeared on the Poetry Daily website on Saturday, January 22, 2005. I have given a name to this form as I do not know what else to call it. Since Poetry Daily’s archive doesn’t go back far enough [I shake my fist at them and ask why not?], you can read it here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/55930You can also read it in Pushcart Prize XXXI: Best of the Small Presses, 2007. [It also appears in Native Guard (Mariner, 2006).]

As you can see, this poem reads as a palindrome but on a line basis, not a character basis. That is, line one & line eighteen (the last line) are the same, lines two & seventeen are the same . . . & lines nine & ten (the middle lines) are the same. The poem thus reads the same backwards as forwards, not to mention it travels the same ground, but in reverse direction – thus, a new perspective on the same event.

Your assignment then is to write a linear palindrome. To be fair, I think the poem should be at least eight lines long. I think fourteen is a good length. If you go fourteen lines, then why not try to make it a rhyming sonnet, & if you can, write it in iambic pentameter & try to get a volta in there. If you do that, then you will be a linguistic genius.

Thinking of linguistic geniuses. . . . The longest palindrome I know is by Georges Perec. (To read it, go here: http://home.arcor.de/jean_luc/Deutsch/Palindrome/perec.htm.) Georges Perec, who likes to make crossword puzzles for fun, is the author of Life: A User’s Manual, which is a brilliant & wonderful novel whose structure is based on how a knight moves on a chess board. This novel was translated from the French to the English by David Bellos. Perec also wrote A Void, a novel in which the letter “e” is not used. It was amazingly translated by Gilbert Adair from the French to the English without using the letter “e”. Perec has a sequel novel, W, or the Memory of Childhood. This novel only uses one vowel, the letter “e”. And this too was amazingly translated from the English to the French by Bellos. It’s a crazy novel to read because you can just see how much struggle goes into saying the simplest thing, & how new events must arise & intercede between the beginning of a simple action & its conclusion, such as getting a book off a shelf.

I am thus inspired to have three sub-assignments:

b: “A Dan acts Niagara war against Canada”, or
“A Dan, a clan, a canal – Canada!” or “Poor Dan is in a droop”

Still tippin’ my hat to D.Mo.

You are to write a palindrome, but on a character level.

c: A, I, O, U, & always Y

You are to dust off an old, failing poem, & revise it so it no longer contains the letter “e”.

d: E, E, E, E, E, & E

Using the same poem from the first sub-assignment, revise it but use only the letter “e” as the poem’s only vowel.

//

Lost in Translation, or Perdu dans la traduction, or For Shits & Giggles, or Pour des merdes et rit nerveusement

It’s spring break for many of us, so this one is for fun. So please have fun!

Type in a poem into a translator (like world.altavista.com/ or babblefish.com/babblefish/language.htm or  https://translate.google.com/), & choose, for instance, the “English to Spanish.” Then, take what it has translated & translate it BACK to English, & watch the hilarity ensue.

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Translation

I heard about this one somewhere. Translate an English poem from English to English. I imagine this can done on a word-to-word basis or a line-to-line basis, or the music/melody could just be carried over, or the syntax could be carried over. Whatever you think translation means.

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31
Oct
15

Quick Notes on Charles Wright

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

//

Charles WrightCharles Wright (August 25, 1935) is an American poet and professor emeritus of creative writing at the University of Virginia. In 1983, his book Country Music: Selected Early Poems shared the National Book Award with Galway Kinnell’s Selected Poems; in 1998, his book Black Zodiac won the Pulitzer Prize; and in 2014, he was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Lately, I’ve been wondering about the materiality of language and what it means or is. After some research, I think I have an idea. The materiality of language suggests, in part, that language is a material substance that is part of the phenomenological experience of the world, and as a material, it is malleable – it can be changed, reshaped, and regulated. So language is two things: it’s part of the experience and it’s a tool to engage with an experience. Language becomes the landscape of vision, and we become language. Or as Wright says in “Tennessee Line”: “We are our final vocabulary, / and how we use it. / There is no secret contingency. / There’s only rearrangement, the redescription / Of little and mortal things” (17). Those last two lines act as an aesthetic principle for Wright, too. Poetry is old words in new orders exploring the same content. Poetry is style laid atop the content of experience. As Wright also says in “Chickamauga,” “The poem is a code with no message: / The point of the mask is not the mask but the face underneath, / Absolute, incommunicado, / unhoused and peregrine” (33).

Part of this linguistic experience is to give contour to the visible in order to experience the invisible, and by invisible I also mean abstract. Wright’s poems (at least in Negative Blue) move back and forth between abstraction (especially in statement form) and image. He creates juxtapositions of idea and experience. Usually the movement is on a small scale, such as in the middle of “Waiting for Tu Fu” (with Wright’s rare use of apostrophe):

     O we were pure and holy in those days,
     The August sunlight candescing our short-sleeved shirt fronts,
     The music making us otherwise.
     O we were abstract and true.
     How could we know that grace would fall from us like shed skin,
     That reality, our piebald dog, would hunt us down.
                                                    (57)

This stanza opens with the abstraction of “pure and holy,” and then shifts to images in the next two lines, then back to the abstract with “we were abstract and true,” but in the final two lines is where the movement is more sudden, as it goes from “grace” to “shed skin” in one line, and then in the last line, from the abstraction of “reality” to the concrete of “piebald dog,” and then the blending of abstract and concrete in “would hunt us down.” Wright concretizes the abstraction and makes it come alive in action as reality begins its hunt like a dog. Not all of Wright’s movements concretize abstractions as here, but the juxtapositions do give shape to the abstractions, or what cannot be seen.

A larger scale juxtaposition occurs in “Yard Work”:

     I think that someone will remember us in another time,
     Sappho once said – more or less –
     Her words caught
     Between the tongue’s tip and the first edge of the invisible.

     I hope so, myself now caught
     Between the edge of landscape and the absolute,
     Which is the same place, and the same sound,
     That she made.

     Meanwhile, let’s stick to business.
     Everything else does, the landscape, the absolute, the invisible.
     My job is yard work –
     I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there.
                                                                            (67)

The “more or less” in line 2 is acknowledgement that language is not exacting. It’s a means of communicating something close to what we mean, or as Wright says in “Sprung Narratives”: “The world is a language we never quite understand, / But we think we catch the drift of” (23). So even though language is part of the experience and a tool for experience, it’s not perfectly mimetic. It’s almost as if language is a gesture towards the truth. But what is truth in “Yard Work”? Is it that space between the visible and invisible? between the utterable and unutterable? – “Between the tongue’s tip and the first edge of the invisible”? Or is it between the physical and metaphysical? – “Between the edge of the landscape and the absolute.” Or is it the sign? – the word Sappho “made” out of signifier (“the same place”) and the signified (“the same sound”). The word as mediation of experience. Or is truth just keeping busy? Is truth action? Consider his work in the last line: “I take this inchworm, for instance, and move it from here to there.” here there is measurement (“inch”) and movement (“from here to there”) and distance (however far it is from “here to there”), and are all three of these things are what one needs to identify time. Without movement, there is no time. Wright enacts the passage of time not only by the movement of inchworm, but also with the juxtaposition of past (Sappho) and present. That juxtaposition coupled with the more intricate juxtapositions of language (stanza 1), thought (stanza 2), and action (stanza 3), enables one to record memories and the invisible and the passage of time. Or as he more aptly says in the opening of “Basic Dialogue”:

     The transformation of objects in space,
                                                                or objects in time,
     To objects outside either, but tactile, still precise . . .
     It’s always the same problem –
     Nothing’s more abstract, more unreal,
                                                               than what we actually see.
     The job is to make it otherwise.
                                          (147)

//

Works Cited

Wright, Charles. Negative Blue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. Print.

//

22
Jun
14

On Stuart Kestenbaum’s Only Now

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose. //

Stuart Kestenbaum – Only Now Many of the poems in Stuart Kestenbaum’s Only Now (Deerbrook Editions, 2014) feel like poems Gregory Orr would write if he wrote narrative poems (some of the meditative and lyrical poems also feel like Gregory Orr poems), a number of the poems have the mythical feel of a Merwin myth-like poem, and some have the intimacy of a Jack Gilbert poem. These styles, among others, are what one would need to successfully write a carpe diem book of poems, and neo-romantic book of poems, at that.

I don’t normally like drawing comparisons to other writers when a reviewing a book of poems, but this time it seems like a good idea to present a feel for the book. In addition, while the opening poem, “Prayer While Downshifting,” is a fine poem, it is acting more as a deliberate lense for the book. By placing this poem at the opening, Kestenbaum is attempting to focus the reader’s mood or reading in a deliberate direction. However, this poem would be better off if it appeared further on in the book, as it needs to built in to or up to. As an opening poem, it’s too heavy handed in its allegory and symbol building, and I want everyone who gets to this book to know that what follows the opening poem is very moving – emotionally and intellectually. In addition, I think (and wonder) if it is better for an author to let the reader discover meanings on their own instead of directing them down a certain path. Or better still, for the author and reader to discover together. More inclusiveness. More of a we-book, where meanings have “to happen because we’ve / made a framework for it. It’s the framework that gives the meaning” (“Big World”). Further, “because meaning is a wild animal that surprises you” (“Prayer for Real”), the reader will want to experience the surprise of discovering meaning, which is what this book does. It surprises. It’s inclusive. It’s a book for author and reader, for you and me, for we.

Maybe it would be better if the book opened with the second poem, “Rocky Coast,” which begins 350 million years in the past, and then in two words, flashes forward 350 million years to today. (Has there ever been a lengthier flash forward?) And this flash forward takes us into an everyday we are familiar with – it takes us into Dunkin’ Donuts. It delivers us into fantasies of hope, revenge, and escape while the “fallen world” is everywhere outside the Dunkin’ Donuts. The next poem, “Getting There,” turns inward even more. It balances the safety of Dunkin’ Donuts with the neo-romantic notion that “deep inside us” are the answers to:

     Where is the place we are always asking about.
     It’s the country we remember in our dreams.
     Where is where we’ll find what we need to know

     whatever that is, whatever we thought it was
     going to be.

Notice how these are shared questions (we all have them), but it’s the turning inward where we find our own answers and meanings. The slow accumulation of poems in Only Now is like a manual of examples and experiences we are all aware of, and the poems about them are in Only Now for us to meditate on, to turn inward on, to equip us with living in the only now we have, and to help us prepare for our eventual demise.

For instance, the conclusion of “Crows”:

         before we began to speak we could feel the world
     inside our bodies and it moved us as we moved with it.
     Perhaps this is our mother tongue, the language of our cells,
     the diction of our hearts and lungs. There, don’t say
     anything for a while, don’t even think in words,
     think in whatever is beyond the thought of words,
     the nameless world that you try so hard to forget
     by naming everything. Take away the caws from the sky,
     take away the rumble from the ice and while you’re at it
     take away the hiss of today’s headlines, like air leaking
     out of the world. See what’s left after that and listen to it.

Again, there is the turning inward for answers, meanings, and, perhaps more importantly, the turning to pure experience – the experience of events before the interference of language. In this wordless realm, we might even get closer to how a god lives and experiences time and the world, as we eventually will. In “Wild God,” we experience god in the Garden of Eden “when the earth was new and animals hadn’t been named yet.” We see god creating and rearranging the earth and then relaxing and admiring his work. Similar to “Rocky Coast,” there is a lengthy flash forward, but this time the experience is not imagistic – like being in a Dunkin’ Donuts – it’s in the experience of time as a god experiences time. When I read this poem the first time, I felt a shift in time, but I wasn’t sure how it happened. It was seamless and flowed naturally. After I paid closer attention to the tenses in the poem, I saw how in half a line the tense shifted from past to present, and the poem moved from millions of years ago to today almost instantaneously, in the blink of a god’s eye. Kestenbaum used syntax and not words to approximate the experience of time for a god. He didn’t explain or even show. He made an experience and made it feel real. In addition, this instantaneous passage of time also seems to suggest that the past resides in the present, or that the distance between past and present is not so far apart, such as for the 93-year old Dora on her deathbed in “The Passage,” who is dying in the present but living in the memories of her past.

Overall, Only Now creates the feeling that living and dying is a juggling act:

     Whether we spend our time
     fearing death or not, listening
     for its footsteps or plugging

     our ears, we all end up
     where we began, just dust
     combined with the weight
 
     of what we carried in the world. (“Scattered”)

It’s a juggling act of living in the now and with the past that made us into who we are now, while at the same time preparing for death, or even avoiding thinking about death like “young minds [who] can’t imagine not existing anymore” (“Back Then”). Stuart Kestenbaum through tight, interlocking poems gives experiences for how to live “As if the Tree of Life / is inside us” (“Breath”) within the precious time we have in our Only Now that is our only life. This is a book of poems I can’t recommend enough for the collective that is we.//

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Kestenbaum, Stuart. Only Now. Cumberland: Deerbrook Editions, 2014.//

23
May
14

Ecomedia: Songs of Healing and Texts of Iatrogenic Harm in Linda Hogan’s The Book of Medicines

Ecomedia: Songs of Healing and Texts of Iatrogenic Harm in Linda Hogan’s The Book of Medicines 

Linda Hogan – The Book of MedicinesLinda Hogan’s A Book of Medicine is concerned with a number of issues, such as the genocide of the Native Americans (as Emily Hegarty points out), the destructive results of men’s actions, women’s ability to create and maintain relationships, the environment, etc. It is also about the media of communication and the healing abilities or harm that can come from these media. In this collection of poems, there are essentially two modes of communication that are explored: song and text. Songs arise from within an entity, while words are spoken from a human-made language and often from a textual source.

Prior to the invention of the printing press or even before the creation of writing, song and voice had a monopoly on the media of communication. Noises arose from the speaker and communication was created. Meanings and ideas floated into the air and dissipated into the environment. Meanings and ideas were shared even if they couldn’t be recovered after spoken for closer scrutiny or revision. Song and voice came from within the speaker and went out into the world to be shared. With the rise of writing and printing, language started to evolve rules of syntax, grammar, and words that had more specific definitions. In addition, information could be stored, and it didn’t dissipate outwards. Once written, it stayed on the page. In addition, this new language started to assert itself into the environment. It imposed its meanings and rules on living and non-living entities. It encouraged an us-them relationship. According to David Gilcrest, “We have tended to view the European [language] tradition as hopelessly logocentric, in love with the Word (not the World), hostile to unmediated experience, in short, antithetical to the ecopoetic aesthetic” (22). Linda Hogan’s book, on one level, wants to address this European language tradition that is in love with the word and imposes itself onto nature and creates division and harm between humans and non-humans, whereas the ecopoetic aesthetic, or song in The Book of Medicines, creates a relationship between speaker and the speaker’s surrounding environment of living and non-living entities. Linda Hogan’s The Book of Medicines is a book about how to heal wounds by creating ecomedia relations through song and not by the use of logocentric division.

This paper will slowly evolve towards a definition of what is meant by ecomedia, but first, I would like to ground this paper by defining ecopoetry and ecopoetic aesthetic, as they will be used here. Even though, “[a] precise definition of ecopoetry has not yet been established” (Bryson, “Introduction” 3), a definition can be hinted at. According to Leonard M. Scigaj, ecopoetry is “poetry that persistently stresses human cooperation with nature conceived as dynamic” (5). In order to accomplish this human cooperation, Ecopoets “seem to know that the loss of relationship with the natural world is irrevocable, yet they continue to call for some sort of healing of that breach [. . .] and they certainly yearn for the relationship” (Bryson, “Preface” 3), and this loss of the natural world happened a long time ago. As a result, Ecopoetry, on one level, asserts our current relation with nature, ecology, and environment. In the ancient past, humans had relationships with nature and non-human entities (plants, animals, minerals, etc.), and their art reflected that relationship, as Hogan says:

                us
   who remember caves with red bison
   painted in their own blood,
   after their kind
                                                      (“The History of Red” 11-14). 

Today, modern humans have a relation where nature serves humans, and humans use it for their own ends. Ecopoetry, then, asserts the current divide’s harmful effects while trying to revive ancient-like relationships with nature in order to heal.

Ecopoets can do this in a number of ways. For instance, according to Scigaj, “‘human language is much more limited than the ecological process of nature.’ Ecopoets ‘recognize the limits of language while referring us in epiphanic moment to our interdependency and relatedness to the richer planet whose operations created and sustained us” (Gilcrest 19). In addition:

Scigaj explains, ecopoets “want the poem to challenge and reconfigure the reader’s perceptions so to put the book down and live life more fully in all possible dimensions of the moment of firsthand experience within nature’s supportive second skin and to become more responsible about that necessary second skin.” (Bryson, “Preface” 3).

The ecopoet then writes to create experience and to encourage the reader to live more closely with their environment instead of through the dividing media of a book or textual source. The ecopoet also “looks to discover the means to ‘go back’ to a time and place of nonduality and relational significance” (4). This nonduality and relational significance exists most naturally in a pre-linguistic environment or time, especially before Descartes, which I’ll get to later. It is in “the work of these contemporary [eco]poets, we get a perspective on the human-nonhuman relationship” (Bryson, “Introduction” 5), and for Linda Hogan, the medicine of healing and relational significance, in part, comes from song, and the harm – the divisive force – comes from language, especially written language.

To begin examining the difference between song and language in The Book of Medicines, a good place to start is with “The Alchemists,” which is the poem that opens “The Book of Medicines” section. In this poem, there is a high-level evolution of the divisiveness that language creates. The poem opens:

   By day
   they bent over lead’s
   heavy spirit of illness,
   asking it to be gold
                                (1-4)
 

Putre FactioThe alchemists, traditionally, see lead as gold that is ill or gold that is not arising to its potential. There is also the myth of the alchemists who are trying to convert lead into gold using various incantations and ingredients, like sulphur and cinnabar. In this stanza, however, we seem to be at an early stage of alchemy. Here the alchemists are “asking” the lead to be gold. They are not trying to change its state through magical spells or concoctions, but they are asking it to become its full potential – gold. In the poem’s penultimate stanza, however, we encounter the actions of an evolved, or more modern, alchemist:

   But he was only a man
   talking to iron,
   willing it to be gold.
                                   (38-40)
 

In this stanza, the alchemist moves from “asking” with reverence and respect to “talking to” the metal. The important preposition here is “to.” The alchemist is not talking “with” the metal as if in an equal relationship. He is talking to the iron. This relationship has turned from sympathy to subservience, or at least there is more distancing between the two and less empathy. There is the subtle shift in dominance of man over matter. This shift becomes more pronounced in the next line with “willing,” which suggests that by the alchemist’s powers alone he can deliberately force the iron to become or transform into a new object. He can will it to be something it is not, which is not dissimilar to the naming of the animals in “Naming the Animals.”

“Naming the Animals” begins:

   After the words that called legs, hands,
   the body
   of man out of clay and sleep
                                                            (1-3)
 

Here, words evoke man or conjure him up from earth and dreams. What is interesting here, however, is that these words are unmediated. That is, there are just words with no speaker or delivery system of the words. These words also name or make categories, such as “legs, hands,” and “body.” This is the beginning of language, and the man risen from the clay, or Adam as we learn by the end of the poem, usurps this language for his own ends and he imposes it on other non-Adamic entities. He names:

             
                wolf, bear, other
   as if they had not been there
   before his words [. . .]
   or sung themselves into life
   before him.
                                              (7-9, 11-12)


Adam Naming Animals Theophanes at MeteoraHe (Adam) imposes names onto other animals against their will and makes them an “other.” He took the unmediated words, appropriated them, and then used the medium of his body to name or categorize the non-Adamic creatures. He did not respect that they already had their own identities. These original identities did not come from words, but they came from song. Each animal sung itself into existence with its own song. So not only does Adam re-identify the creatures he also banishes them and “sent [them] crawling into the wilderness.” He created a me-them or me-other relationships with these animals.

The poem and time continue, and Adam’s children name a group of creatures “pigs.” We can’t be sure what group of creatures they actually are because Adam’s children have named them, but there is a voice that speaks for these creatures – the first person subject “I.” The I, or speaker of the poem, lives in the “wilderness” away from the “law and order” of Adam’s language, and she is old enough to remember a time, a pre-linguistic time (“before the speaking”), where there were “no edges to the names.” These names are the songs the animals sing to create themselves. In addition, these songs have “no edges,” unlike Adam’s words which categorize with defining edges. If there are no edges, then things flow into one another. There is no clear demarcation between living entities or non-living entities. There is a relationship, and this relationship is in a timeless space with “no beginning, no end.” However, after Adam stole language and started naming entities against their will, he also stole their powers to sing, which is a not only a source of creation but a form of connection, as suggested by the closing lines: “my stolen powers / hold out their hands / and sing through me.”

What can be noticed about the songs in this poem, and the songs throughout the book, is the songs have no words. Songs are like “breath in a flute” (“Nothing” 76). They are a breath mediated by the mouth to make meaningful noise. As a meaningful breath-noise, it instantly interacts and unifies with the air and environment. Despite the lack of words, the songs communicate, create, and form relationships, such as in “The Grandmother Songs.” This poem directly follows “The Alchemists” in order to juxtapose the divisive non-healing language of the alchemists with the embracing and healing abilities of song.

In “The Grandmother Songs,” songs “rose of out of wet labor.” They were part of the birthing process. The baby and their songs were as one and one creation. These songs also “made a shape around me [the speaker], / a grandmother’s embrace” (7-8). In addition, “Song was the pathway where people met / and animals crossed” (25-6). These songs, then, created life and made relationships. Songs also have the powers of “finding the lost” (12), to create rain (13), and to enable a woman to “fly” (18). Perhaps this is also the stolen power referred to in “Naming the Animals.” Nonetheless, song creates and unifies.

Most important, perhaps, is that song is also a medicine that can heal when the body is recognized “as agent of experience” (Wegenstein 21). According the Wegenstein, there is a “tension between the body as object and as agent of experience” (21) and examples of this can be seen in “the art of healing across culture” (22). Wegenstein continues:

Western culture since the sixteenth century has developed methods for opening the body and examining it for symptoms of disease or other conditions to be eradicated.  [. . .] More recently, the ongoing development of medical imaging technologies has improved our access to the body’s insides, put the body on display in deeper and even more inclusive ways, and thus facilitated the exposition of factors contributing to disease. (22-3)

Looking back at “The Alchemists,” we see two types of healing. One is healing the lead by respectfully asking it to change its form, as we see, in stanza one (treating the body as “agent of experience”), and the other is a doctor trying to heal patient (body “as object”) in stanza four. Stanza four opens with the speaker’s “father behind a curtain. He has been separated from others within the “sick ward” environment. This father also “heard a doctor / tell a man where the knife / would cut flesh,” or separate skin. He also hears a man “reading from a magical book.” This recalls stanzas five and six of “The History of Red,” where we encounter the origins of Western medicine:

   The doctors wanted to know
   what invented disease
   how wounds healed
   from inside themselves
   [. . .]
   They divined the red shadows of leeches
                                                           (40-44, 47)
 

In “The History of Red,” the reader also encounters cutting “the wall of skin” and the doctors “reading the story of fire,” which I take to be the “magical book,” which is a book of words, and perhaps incantations. This brings us back to the closing of “The Alchemists.” The words this doctor speaks are akin to those more modern alchemists with their incantations of trying to turn or force lead into gold. According to Hegarty, “[f]or Hogan the doctor is just another alchemist” (165), and “if the surgeon’s diagnostic [or even the alchemist’s] speech ‘had worked / we would kneel down before it / and live forever’” (165). Of course his speech and words do not work because the written language, even when spoken, does not recognize that the body harmonizes within itself and outside of itself. The doctor’s “focus on the body as a visible object tends to obscure the bodily agency that is at work, for example, in fighting disease” (Wegenstein 23). Not only that, the doctor’s language sets up a Cartesian tension between body and mind, where the passive body is “manipulated by the mind” (Wegenstein 23) of the doctor and the doctor’s language and tools. As a result, there is a

phenomenological differentiation between “being a body” and “having a body”: the former, insofar as it designates the process of living the body, the first-person perspective, coincides with dynamic embodiment; the latter, referencing the body from an external, third-person perspective, can be aligned with the static body. (21)

The doctor provides that “third-person perspective” and Cartesian duality not only between body and mind but between patient’s body and doctor’s body, whereas the healing song comes from within the body and yokes together the mind, body, and environmental dynamic.

The healing song recognizes that body “is an expression of its environment on all scales, from the microscopic to the cosmic” (23). Further, in some non-Western medicines, “[r]ather than inspect the individual body piecemeal for specific causes” (23), as the doctors in “The Alchemist” and in “The History of Red” do, a non-Western medicine “looks at the balance or harmony within and without the body, and seeks to intervene in order to alter this relation in beneficial ways” (23). So, when the grandmother is under “the false death of surgery” (26) in “The Grandmother Songs,” she is forced to sing “for help” (27), which is similar to the out reached hands singing at the end of “Naming the Animals.” The song reaches out for help and not only physical help but temporal help, as well. It reaches out to an “older history” (37), a time “before the time of science / before we fell from history” (“Flood: The Sheltering Tree” 26-7). In “Flood: The Sheltering Tree,” “Land takes back the forgotten name of rain” and enables people to hear rain’s “wet song” (29) and smell its “smell of healing” (30). This ancient song-healing medicine, which can come from the song of a wolf as well, as it does in “The Fallen,” is a song the modern alchemists and doctors “did not learn healing / from” (25-6).

The doctors and alchemists in The Book of Medicines, in a sense, are like Ferdinand de Saussure who points out that language or signs do not have a direct link or causal link to the actual, physical thing it represents or express. Claude Lévi-Strauss would add that words, or written language, are a “secondary system of representation, figures deferment, absence, difference, and inauthenticity” (Liu 319) as opposed to speech which suggests “immediacy, presence, identity, and authenticity” (319). Stated differently, words label and distance, and as a result the language of modern western medicine cannot heal effectively, as Hegarty pointed out. The language creates an iatrogenic relationship, and according to Hegarty, wounds or diseases are “iatrogenic caused by the diagnosis, manner, or treatment of physical diseases” (165). “It is a language,” according to Hogan, “that is limited emotionally and spiritually, as if it can’t accommodate such magical power and strength” (Dwellings 45-6). Song, however, does have a direct link with the thing it represents. It comes from the voice of the object singing itself into existence, causing relationships, and the medicine of healing. This is the ecomedia that was mentioned before.

Ecomedia is not objective or textual. It is sound with meaning that connects with others and bonds with the environment. It does not harm or divide. It is available to all humans and non-humans or any entity that can sing for itself.

As a result of ecomedia, especially song, Linda Hogan can endure and heal from the sickness that is presented in “Sickness”:

   If we are all one,
   then in my hand
   is the mortal enemy,
   the one that felled the forest,
   struck the fire,
   the doctors of torture
   living at the edge of sanity
   that, like broken glass,
   does not call itself sharp.
                                             (1-9)
 

This destruction even enters “inside” (16) herself, and “It went to work. / It tried to take my tongue” (25-6), which recalls the end of “Naming the Animals”: “my stolen powers / hold out their hands / and sing through me” (36-8). Her stolen powers are an ecomedium. And it’s from the reaching-out power of the ecomedium song, the reaching out for help and embrace, the “singing for help” (“The Grandmother Songs” 27) during the “false death of surgery” (26) that Hogan is able to survive and write poetry and write The Book of Medicines and make the claim at the end of “Sickness” that her poetry “words / these words are proof / there is healing” (27-8), and healing that comes from song. Note, however, she uses a word from the world that is not part of the ecomedia world, a word that belongs to science and Western medicine, a word Descrates would use, as well, and that word is “proof.” Not only does her song heal the divide that Western medicine creates with its textual language, but it’s a word that can communicate to the logocentric world, and if the logocentric world can accept this word and this “proof” of an ecomedium or ecomedia, then perhaps it too can learn to sing the unmediated healing song that is medicine.

//

Works Cited

Bryson, J. Scott. “Introduction.” Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2002. 1-16. Print.

—. “Preface.” The West Side of Any Mountain: Place, Space, and Ecopoetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2005. 1-6. Print.

Gilcrest, David. “Regarding Silence: Cross-Cultural Roots of Ecopoetic Meditation.” Ecopoetry:  A Critical Introduction. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 2002. 17-28. Print.

Hegarty, Emily. “Genocide and Extinction in Linda Hogan’s Ecopoetry.” Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2002. 162-75. Print.

Hogan, Linda. Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World. New York: Norton, 1995.

—. The Book of Medicines. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1993. Print.

Liu, Lydia H. “Writing.” Critical Terms for Media Studies. Eds. W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B. N. Hansen. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010. 310-26. Print.

Wegenstein, Bernadette. “Body.” Critical Terms for Media Studies. Eds. W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B. N. Hansen. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010. 19-34. Print.

//

To download a PDF of this essay, click Ecomedia Songs of creation and text of division.

//

05
Feb
13

Leigh Anne Couch’s Houses Fly Away (2007)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 11, which was published circa January 2009.

//

Leigh Anne Couch's – Houses Fly AwayOne of the first things I notice about Leigh Anne Couch’s poems in Houses Fly Away (Zone 3 Press), especially in the wonderful anti-war poem “Trains,” is that they are well disciplined and controlled . . . and patient. Often when we hear “disciplined,” we actually hear “intellectual and without emotion” and maybe even hear “formulaic,” but not in this case. Couch is disciplined because she lets emotions evolve. But there’s more: these poems speak to the mind, body, heart, and soul – which is damned rare to find these days. Couch’s poems will affect you in all of those areas, especially the emotional. Or perhaps  I should quote from“Lazarus” to better explain, but when you read “love” read “poem” and you’ll understand what I’m getting at.

   Till now in the airless dark, Lazarus
   had no idea love means
   thick blood in bursting blows
   to the hands, feet, organs,

   and mind – all coming . . . 		
                                                      (ll 1-5)

So, yes, there is some damned good poetry in Houses Fly Away, and if you want to learn craft, there’s a lot to be learned in these pages. She’s got what Pound calls Techne. And here technique draws from all schools of poetry – Deep Image (both styles, à la Robert Kelly and Robert Bly), Black Mountain, Language, Elliptical, etc. – and combines them all for some superb poetry. Enough said.//

//

//

//

Couch, Anne Leigh. Houses Fly Away. Clarksville, TN: Zone 3 Press, 2007.//

30
Nov
10

Laura McCullough’s Speech Acts

A version of this may appear in Redactions: Poetry & Poetics issue 14.

Laura McCullough's Speech ActsBlack Lawrence Press has released another fine collection of poems. This time it’s Laura McCullough’s Speech Acts – an exploration into the language and experience of poetry. Yes, language. And McCullough deliberately makes poems about language. Oh, but they are fun, and they aren’t some intellectual bullying of the reader or some masturbatory ego-stroking of the poet’s cleverness. No. These are fun and enjoyable while maintaining integrity.

I am getting bored of the intellectual poetry that is void of experience, which is why I like McCullough’s newest collection,  because her poems can be intellectual while maintaining an experience.

The first section of Speech Act does this well by being sexy and showing the sexiness of language. It’s as if the first section announces to the reader: “Pay attention to language in this book. I’ll give you sex up front, but come the second section I’m gonna give you more.  I’m going to give you poems in the second section that are strong on their own, and if you read the first section, they will gain new depths. I’m telling you something more is going on down below. Dear reader, you will go down on these poems like you are going down to perform fellatio on the poem, and the poems may be ‘more than the mouth can handle’, and in a good way.” Even if you didn’t know that, you’d realize it in the poem “Crucifix Block” in the second section, but I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me explain.

The first section of the book is about language and the sexiness of language, but it’s also about the consciousness of language or the self-consciousness of language and of reading a poem.

What Burns 

I want to kiss the mouth of another
   language, feel the small muscles electric
and tingling around their vowels,
   the consonants swallowed, the silences
like small maps of a small
   engine that rests on both of our lips.
Chomsky said language
   is too difficult to deduce by attention
to repetitions, but I will
   repeat this exercise until your tongue
feels like my own and the spittle
   of apprehension collects in the pit
of my mind. Your reason
   isn't all I care for; when you speak, the air
is shaped into momentary volcanoes,
   the ash drifting into my eyes, blinding me,
so I can finally see vowels
   that float in the air like ash, like snow,
searing and momentarily illuminated.

On a sexy level, that’s like getting to first base, but I think the point is clear. The poems examine language and use the lens of sex to zoom in even closer, especially the home run poems, oo la la.

In the second section, the self-consciousness disappears. The poems become more experiential, like “Crucifix Block.” In this poem not only do you symbolically go into the unconsciousness by diving underwater with the whales and holding your breath of consciousness, but the poem moves with leaps, the kind of leaping I like and celebrate – the haiku leap, the jumping-with-sensation leap. The type of leaping that can’t occur if you are self-conscious. And there are two of these leaps in this poem.

Crucifix Block 

Today, the humpbacks have made a comeback,
   and still we know so little about them.
We don't know why they hold their breath
   and go still underwater or why they
gather off Hawaii; we do know only males
   sing the famous songs and change them each year.
We know the males rise up out
   of the water, their bodies tall, the tails submerged,
their fins extended like the cross.
   Scientists say this is to block other males from
charging a female, but I don't buy it,
   it's too grand, too high out of the water, the mating
dances far below. Whales live
   in a world they hold their breaths to survive in.
We breathe the details of our lives like oxygen
   isn't the endangered species it is.
A fog has rolled in, and someone's been disappeared,
   no charges filed, and none of us
are singing, writing letters, or even complaining at all.

These leaps are so below my consciousness, so below self-consciousness that I can’t quite explicate what the poem is trying to say, but I can tell you what the poem is doing. The first part reminds us of how the humpback whale almost went extinct. It shows us how the whale breathes, and it shows us sex acts – sex acts explained by a scientist and McCullough. The scientists give a practical answer as to why the whale behaves as it does – it’s a mating ritual. McCullough, however, gives us a grander explanation, a religious explanation. She explains it as a ritual of joy. A rising up to the gods, almost. A holy hosanna. Look at that those two lines:

We know the males rise up out
   of the water, their bodies tall, the tails submerged,

There are three prepositions in a row interrupted by a line break. You might think McCullough should get rid of “up” as that is implied by “rise.” But read it again, aloud, and with imagination. The “up” makes the humpback whale rise higher. Then higher still with “their bodies tall.”

Humpback Whale – "Crucifix Block"

The males rise up out / of the water their bodies tall, the tails submerged / their fins extended like the cross.

I can’t remember when I’ve seen three prepositions strung together like that while being successful and adding to the poem’s doings and meanings.

But back to the leaps. Back to the experiential and unself-consiousness. The first leap happens with:

We breathe the details of our lives like oxygen
   isn’t the endangered species it is.

The poem makes a leap from whale world to human world. What makes the leap work is the oxygen, the breathing. It connects the first part of the poem with the second part of the poem. The scientist helps the bridge, too, since he is human, but he is the self-consciousness, the self-conscious world we’ve been in. At the same time, he is in the whale world. That leap takes us into the human world.

The next leap takes us into the unknown, the lost, the “disappeared.” It’s almost like a movie scene, too. This is the experiential. The lack of self-consciousness. These last three lines feel right. The poem closes shut tightly and snugly. My body and extremities feel good about the poem. They embrace the poem. They say, “Yes. I get it. Wonderful.” My conscious mind, however, is a bit lost. It can’t seem to explicate. It thinks, “Maybe it has something to do with singing and rituals. Does singing and writing and complaining do something. Are the whales not extinct because they sing or because we wrote about them or because we complained when they were almost extinct and then they were brought back from extinction?”

Is this how the book works? Is this “the ars poetica hidden in the agenda”? Will the third section end up:

            [. . .] breaking the sky
   into component parts. Everything
is reanimated, but, like some crazy
   reincarnation, you can't ever be
sure if the original thing is retained
                                               ("Beauty, I Said")

The third section moves like good poems do – just moving in and out of consciousness and unconsciousness, moving in and out of water, in and out of breathing, in and out of sex, as she says in  “Animal Engine:”

   "It's the third element that matters, the one that
completes the equation, that computes to love."
   This engine gone still hums hot underneath us.

Where “engine” is sex and the momentum generator of the poems. The question of the third section:

            [. . .] Is
            there such a thing as beauty if we're
           not aware of it? ("Beauty, I Said")

After reading the second section, the answer is “Of course there is.”

“So that’s, cool,” my inner voice says. “There’s a dialectical movement between the sections, but do the poems work?”

Yes. And what’s important is that there is something new happening in these poems. A new type of engagement for the reader with the poems. It’s an engagement that explores both the experiential and self-conscious involvement of the reader. The poems are indeed Speech Acts. They are poems that act on you and ask you to act back.

These poems show how McCullough’s:

[. . .] body was fertile, then not,
then fecund, again, with language. There's           
a connection between the throat           
and vagina.
                                          ("What Can Happen in the Dunes")

I feel like this is a significant collection of poems for McCullough as she seems to be on the edge of doing something wonderful. These poems are her exploring poetry, her poetry, and her speech acts. The exploration is fun, and Speech Acts is a fine book of poems that I recommend to any reader or writer of poetry. I also await her next book, where I think she will really create and share something truly wonderful. That’s a tip to you Black Lawrence Press – Make sure you hold on to Laura McCullough because her next collection of poems is sure to be something even more special than this collection.//




The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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